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Buy This Game, Please

2 Orange County girls were just minding their manners in the etiquette jungle. Then the sisters decided to play entrepreneurs.

July 08, 1998|ANDREA ADELSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Kaitlin and Kelley Kennedy may be the next manners queens of their generation.

Their tutelage began last year when the sisters from Coto de Caza chafed at attending etiquette classes held at a local country club. The fancy dresses and white gloves were unnerving enough, but the lessons in ballroom dancing and table manners were thoroughly boring.

Still, the girls did recognize that they could use more schooling in modern civilities--and that they weren't alone.

"My sister and I wanted better manners and thought if people had better manners the world would be a better place," said Kaitlin, 10.

With their mother encouraging them to make learning manners more fun, Kelley, 13, and Kaitlin created Jungle Etiquette, a board game that challenges players to use proper common courtesies in everyday situations.

The player who answers the most questions appropriately earns entry into the temple, an Indiana Jones-style pyramid crossed with the Taj Mahal.

A neighbor and the sisters' caretaker, Zea Shimahara, 33, served as creative consultant, and helped the girls pull together the art and graphic elements for the game, based on Kaitlin's interest in jungle life.

"I thought it would be a skit my husband would videotape," said Leslie Kennedy, the girls' mother and a public relations executive with the Meguiar's Corp. of Irvine. "I never in a million years thought it was going to be a viable product."

After Kennedy, 40, invested $50,000 and countless hours moonlighting, Jungle Etiquette made its debut in June. About 200 of the $29.95 games have been sold through a toll-free number, a Web site and at a specialty toy store in Rancho Santa Margarita. Hart Graphics Inc. in Irvine printed and manufactured the game and fills telephone orders.

"I think it's a great game, very unique," said Lisa Toler, who co-owns Fantasy Toys, the board game's lone commercial distributor. "In general, games are slower sellers because they take a lot of explanation."

The game's debut has meant adjusting the Kennedy girls' usual summer fare of camping, biking, studying karate and visiting friends. Kaitlin and Kelley make time for business as majority stockholders in Youth Advantage Inc., a privately held company created to market the game.

Although their mom is the company's marketing guru and their caretaker is its operations manager, the girls are the game's best promoters. "We have another game in mind, but I want to keep it a secret," Kaitlin said.

After eight radio-talk show interviews, glib Kaitlin and the more cerebral Kelley are becoming polished veterans. During guest slots they typically play a round of Jungle Etiquette and answer call-in questions, as they did recently on KYXY-FM (96.5) in San Diego. They've been interviewed on stations in Calgary, Canada and Cape Town, South Africa. "They called us at 9, and it was 4 a.m. there. They wake up that early? Whoa!" Kaitlin said.

Diane Cardinale, a spokeswoman for the Toy Manufacturers of America, said that "toys and games reflect the world in miniature" and that Jungle Etiquette is an example of that. Cardinale noted heightened concerns nationally over youth behavior in the wake of recent campus shootings. The game's content "hits a nerve," said Cardinale, who praised the game makers for being "ahead of their time."

U.S. consumers spent $22.5 billion spent on toys last year, 10% of that on board games. Of the thousands of inventors who hope to create the next toy sensation, board games are especially competitive because the cost of self-production is low compared with that for an electronic gadget or doll, Cardinale said.

It remains to be seen whether Jungle Etiquette will join the ranks of board-game best-sellers such as Trivial Pursuit, Pictionary and Scruples, whose independent inventors each eventually sold manufacturing rights to major toy makers that supply mass merchandisers.

"The game gods could smile on them, but the odds are against it," said Richard Levy, a Washington, D.C. toy inventor who has licensed over 100 games. Major toy-makers, such as Mattel and Milton Bradley, are focused on products with television or film character tie-ins that benefit from studio marketing. "Mom's not going to come up with television dollars," Levy said.

The best the girls can hope for, would be to license Jungle Etiquette to an independent game publisher, such as University Games of Palo Alto. One of the company's successes is Dine-o-Mite, also created by a child.

"The odds are enormous against it [succeeding]," said J. Kevin Fahy, publisher of Games Retailer, a quarterly magazine for game and hobby retailers, based in Geneva, N.Y. But, he added, the content of Jungle Etiquette "sounds unusual" and "it's a catchy angle if it's designed by kids."

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